Partial tuition refund for spring term at Harvard Business School

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Dear Dean Nohria,

We thank you for all of the time, effort, and sincere leadership you have shown navigating the COVID-19 crisis.  We recognize that the transition the school has experienced in the past weeks has not been an easy one, and we are grateful for Harvard Business School’s careful planning, effort, and ingenuity.  We are also sincerely grateful for the honest communication we have received from you.

While we understand that considerable work was required to transition the school to an online-only model, we also recognize that the experience is nowhere near that of the in-person case method.  Many of us made the decision to attend HBS precisely because of this unique case method experience. While it is helpful that Zoom has enabled students to participate in classes, and although professors have attempted to transition the unique learning model into a Zoom-setting, students and professors alike have freely acknowledged that it is a poor substitute for what we experience in Aldrich.  By not providing a partial refund to its in-person MBA students, HBS is signaling that, contrary to student and professor experience, HBS believes the product is equivalent to its in-person classroom offering.

Of course, classes are not the only reason we chose to attend HBS.  The section experience – central to the HBS value proposition in its marketing and a principal differentiator vs. other MBA programs – is now diminished, and we have been foreclosed from many aspects of community building.  HBS’s unwillingness to provide a refund also sends the message that the school attributes no monetary value to the aforementioned. In other words, we have understood the message delivered by the administration’s hard line against tuition adjustment to be one which only recognizes the value of our printed diploma upon graduation, and disregards both the quality of our education and the on-campus intangibles we were promised as part of the “HBS experience.”

As such, we formally request a tuition reduction for the portion of the term after spring break, in line with what our peers at other graduate schools of business are requesting.  You have made your position clear that a tuition reimbursement will not happen – we urge you to reconsider.

Indeed, we urge you to reconsider in light of the current crisis, considering the portion of the student body that underwent significant financial difficulty to attend this institution in the first place.  RCs spent this week in LCA learning about how well businesses should treat employees and customers while in a crisis. We have studied numerous cases of businesses that have built lasting value by prioritizing transparency in dialogue and fairness towards their customers and employees.  As your customers, we are disappointed by HBS’s complete refusal to even entertain the discussion surrounding a tuition reimbursement. As MBAs who bought into a promise of an institution focused on creating leaders who effect positive change in the world, we feel constricted by a future employment market that is highly uncertain, burdened by a highly levered level of personal wealth incurred by our belief in our MBA’s potential, and disheartened by our perceived deviation of values espoused by this institution in its refusal to address this topic.

Dean Nohria, in your letter on Easter, you said that everyone needs to pull together.  By refusing to engage in the discussion of a tuition reimbursement, it seems HBS has unilaterally decided that, from a financial perspective, everyone needs to pull together except HBS itself.  Is this how senior HBS faculty would advise CEOs of major corporations to treat their customers in this time of crisis? When a firm’s product and service offerings drastically change, can and should it credibly command the same price for them?  If customers prepaid for such products and services in good faith, isn’t a refund expected - and simply the right thing to do?

Furthermore, the school’s recent announcement of the 80% tuition reduction for its summer CORe Program in light of the Coronavirus generated resentment, as it created conflicting messaging.  Valerie Krempus, an HBS Online administrator, said, “We know that economic uncertainty can be scary and that individuals’ financial situations may have drastically changed in the last few weeks...We wanted to do what we could to make it more affordable and to allow more people to have a meaningful summer experience.”  HBS is clearly willing to reduce by 80% the tuition of a program that was already online, and consider students that have yet to enter the HBS ecosystem. We are perplexed as to why, as HBS admits, we have not yet been offered something similar. The financial onus that the classes of 2020 and 2021 are facing with the uncertain economy and their high student loans have given rise to anti-donation-pledge sentiments, ones that would be detrimental to HBS’s continued growth.  We hope that the alumni relationship we establish through this crisis is stronger - and not soured - by HBS’s unilateral decision on this topic.

We praise the university’s decision to retain employees, especially low-earning support staff during this time of crisis.  As customers of HBS, we are simply asking for the same consideration. We can all agree that many lessons will be transcribed in HBS cases in the coming years - cases about crisis management, leadership effectiveness, and fairness to employees and customers.  We ask you to consider our request through that academic lens such that, in retrospect, HBS will be proud of its decisions, ones that will hopefully preserve the long-term health and reputation of the institution as a whole.

Sincerely,

The HBS MBA Classes of 2020 and 2021